By Lee Smith
With the news of Osama bin Laden’s death sating much of the world’s appetite for reports from the Middle East, the Syrian regime has used what is essentially a media blackout to move against the opposition. As the London-based pan-Arab daily Al Hayat reports:
Security forces launched a new campaign of arrests in the city of Dera’a, which has been besieged for nearly a week, and comes a day after renewed calls by the opposition for demonstrations around the country in order to “break the siege” of the city. Human rights activist Abdullah Abu Zaid said that the forces had begun moving from one neighborhood to another early Sunday morning, backed by tanks and armored vehicles, entering houses and arresting one or two people each time… He added that “the humanitarian situation is in shambles, there is no water, no food, and no electricity.”
You starve a population by denying it food and water, but to cut off its electricity is, in today’s media climate, effectively a death sentence. Without the ability to recharge the cell-phone cameras that have documented the Syrian uprising from its outset, demonstrators will be consigned to a silent death.
Bashar al-Assad’s security forces had already run up a total of some 400 dead before last weekend in what is the most repressive response to any of the Arab uprisings to date. Keep in mind that Europe and the United States intervened against Qaddafi after he threatened to chase his armed opponents, from house to house, alley to alley—the path that Syrian security forces have already taken against unarmed civilians.
Nonetheless, even without international support, and in the face of what is de facto support for the Syrian regime, the opposition kept going to the street—in spite of the fact that they knew the regime’s capacity for violence, not just rumored or threatened, but documented in a steady stream of YouTube videos. But it is this public record that provides the Syrian opposition with the little bit of security it enjoys. Once they leave the streets, and once the cell-phone cameras go dark, they are in a black hole to be rounded up by security forces who will deal with them as they please, long prison terms, torture, murder with burial in mass graves or otherwise disappeared.
Anti-regime activists across the region have learned various media techniques to pressure their rulers and get people on the street—via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube among others—but the regimes have learned just as quickly how to thwart their opponents.
“It’s different from Hama,” says New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. “They’re doing it now in slow motion, bit by bit.”
Friedman is referring to the 1982 episode when Syrian security forces killed somewhere between 10,000 to 40,000 civilians in the city of Hama. Hafez al-Assad’s troops, led by his brother Rifaat, took several weeks to raze the town, the epicenter of a revolt against Hafez spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood that involved atrocities on both sides. Most notably, there was the regime’s mass murder of Muslim Brotherhood prisoners, a Brotherhood attack on a military academy killing scores of Alawite cadets, and an assassination attempt on Hafez’s life. Hama was a Brotherhood stronghold and its destruction put an end to the war, setting an example to anyone else who’d brave their chances against the regime in Damascus. The name became synonymous with Arab-on-Arab violence, thanks in part to Friedman, one of the first foreign reporters on the scene, even as it was two months after the event. He titled one of the chapters in From Beirut to Jerusalem, “Hama Rules,” which are, as he wrote back in 1989, “Rule or Die. One man triumphs, the others weep.”
The story of Hama has resonated throughout the region ever since, which is what makes this series of uprisings, especially Syria’s all the more remarkable. Anyone who goes to the streets of Syrian cities knows not only the regime’s capacity for violence but the pride it takes in its gruesome history.
“Back when I went to Hama,” Friedman recalls, “the city was still closed off, and then they opened it up. It was all cleaned up. Hafez al-Assad wanted the Syrian people to see it.”
The regime wanted to control the message. For weeks after the massacre, rumors were coming out of Syria, but no one knew for sure what happened. “In Beirut,” says Friedman, “we were just hearing vague reports. News dribbled out. It was very different from today, none of the international media was there. And of course there was no YouTube, no Twitter, no cell phones. It’s amazing how even in this closed society that Syria still is today, people are getting out their message.”
The problem is that no one seems to be paying attention. “Everyone has different reasons for saying nothing,” says Friedman. “The Russians, the Iranians, the Lebanese, the Israelis, the Saudis. There’s silence all around.” Compared to the White House’s demands that Egypt’s Mubarak, a U.S. ally, step down, the American government has also been relatively silent about Assad.
It’s worth noting there was silence surrounding Hama, too, not just the silence that was a consequence of the devastation, but a more general silence, the world’s. Hafez al-Assad was to enjoy for another 18 years his reputation as a statesman, a man who kept his word, said U.S. policymakers from both sides of the aisle. Washington didn’t want to hear about it because it complicated policy on other fronts—there was the matter of taming Saddam in Operation Desert Storm and the Arab-Israeli peace process, in which Damascus has always been believed to be central. The academic community didn’t bother with it because the narrative of Arabs killing Arabs was in conflict with its overarching thesis—that the problem with the Middle East was imperialism, or colonialism, or Zionism. And after all, Hafez al-Assad was ostensibly in the front lines of the Arab effort to liberate Jerusalem.
In a manner of speaking Hama never happened; or, no one took anything else away from the lesson except Hafez’s blunt message—violence is the law of the land. That was bin Laden’s message, too, the political efficacy of the spectacle of mass death—violence on a monumental scale. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon took Hama as their model—the rubble at Manhattan’s ground zero was like that of the mid-sized Syrian city two decades before.
After 9/11, Washington policymakers were determined to stamp out extremism, bin Ladenism, Hama rules, the strong horse method. They articulated their support for Arab and Muslim moderates—even as they allowed extremists to thrive. Under Bush’s tenure, the Damascus regime put Syrian dissidents in prison and killed Lebanese politicians, journalists, and civil society activists. It cooperated with bin Laden’s associates in Iraq, like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and helped kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Iraqis, too. And then there are the Palestinians, Lebanese and Israelis killed at the hands of Damascus’s foreign assets, Hezbollah and Hamas. Under Obama’s tenure, Washington has sought comity with these same murderers.
The same people that conceived of Hama and executed tens of thousands 30 years ago never stopped; they just adjusted their methods to fit the changing times, as they are doing even now. And so the afterglow in the wake of bin Laden’s long-sought end will fade fast. Bin Laden is dead; bin Ladenism lives on, embodied now by the rulers in Damascus.
Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at Hudson Institute and is the author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (Doubleday, 2010).